Researchers believe roughly 50-percent of the population suffers from dandruff, a scalp condition that causes dryness and flaking. The same study concluded Americans spend over $300 million dollars annually on dandruff treatments — shampoos, serums, conditioners, and the ilk. This number's incredibly high because the issue — neither a disease nor a disorder, technically — is rarely something that requires medical attention.
After a week or two of using a daily anti-dandruff shampoo, your symptoms should subside. But that's not really the point. Dryness typically triggers itching, which amplifies flakes. They'll appear in the scalp but also at the neckline and on the shoulders. Knowing this, dandruff sufferers steer clear of dark clothes and even don hats on days when it's especially bad.
What Is Dandruff? And, Why Does It Happen?
Dandruff, I'd argue, does more psychological damage than it does physical. Think: self-consciousness, embarrassment, and constant concern over flakes accumulating on your clothes. But again, cases are incredibly common — more so in men than women — and rarely something to really worry about. Scientifically, what causes dandruff isn't crystal clear, researchers revealed, and there aren't exactly facilities dedicated to figuring it out. (There's no "Insert Rich Donor Name Here" Institute for Dandruff Control, for example.) It can appear as a result of a reaction to a new shampoo or styling product, from forgoing a shower for too long, because of a fungus called malassezia, or as a byproduct of another skin condition, like eczema or psoriasis. Dandruff is not purely a marker of poor hygiene.
"Dandruff occurs when the microbiome of their scalp becomes imbalanced," Anabel Kingsley, consultant trichologist at Philip Kingsley, says. "Yeasts naturally live on our scalps, and usually do not cause any problems. However, when a certain species of yeast called the Malassezia yeasts overgrow, this can cause skin cells to divide too rapidly – leading to tell-tale flakes and itching. Malassezia yeasts thrive in an oily environment, and so are likely to overgrow if you shampoo infrequently or have a naturally oily scalp."
What Ingredients Will Fix My Flaky Scalp?
Like the aforementioned spending figure suggests, there is a plethora of anti-dandruff products out there, both in big retailers and niche, skincare-focused stores alike. Most rely on an active ingredient to address the issue — ones like salicylic acid, zinc pyrithione, or selenium sulfide. In more extreme cases, medicinal shampoos might use coal tar or ketoconazole. Those into all-natural remedies have cited tea tree oil and, shocking here, truly, conditioner as quick fixes. After all, a moisturized scalp is less likely to flake because it...isn't, drumroll please, dry.
No matter the severity of your situation, the smartest starting place is an anti-dandruff shampoo. Let our list guide you on your way.
The Best Dandruff Shampoos
Jupiter took the pillars of classic competitors' soaps and refined the recipe a bit. The brand's Balancing Shampoo enlists zinc pyrithione as its active ingredient, and builds a formula from it — plus coconut oil and algae extract —that's free from sulfates, parabens, phthalates and dyes. Plus, it has a natural, mildly minty scent to it.
Zinc pyrithione is the active ingredient in Philip B.'s Anti-Flake Relief Shampoo, too, but this formulation employs oleosomes — microscopic droplets of oil — to not only moisturize the scalp but seal that same moisture in, lessening the likelihood you'll become dry (and be flaky). As far as feel, this option has an ultra-soft, sort of rich texture.
You know the name, and you've definitely seen the bottle. Head and Shoulders — smart name, by the way, if I haven't said it before — makes an array of anti-dandruff shampoos for folks with itchy scalps, treated hair, severe flakes and more. Pyrithione zinc addresses the dandruff, while eucalyptus lends moisture — and a pleasant aroma.
Using active ingredient Piroctone olamine 1% and restorative jujube extract, Typology's Anti-Dandruff Shampoo addresses itching, flaking and fine dust with a formula that's 95 percent naturally-derived.
You've probably heard of Harry's in the context of shaving kits and creams. However, the brand also makes a bunch of other grooming goods. Think: deodorant, styling products, body wash, and, you guessed it, dandruff shampoo — well, technically, 2-1 shampoo and conditioner. Again, pyrithione zinc is the star of the show (active ingredient).
Dove is a great entry option for someone not quite ready to reach for the hard stuff (Head and Shoulders). This one's mild, a marriage between pyrithione zinc, coconut oil and shea butter. Plus, it's cheap. You find a better sub-$5.00 option.
Nizoral — name aside — is the closest you'll get to prescription-level strength without seeing a doctor. Ketoconazole is the active ingredient in here, but heed the brand's directions before using: use only twice a week and avoid contact with your eyes.
In the category, Selsun Blue rivals Head and Shoulders for name recognition. The Blue uses selenium sulfide and aloe for its one-two punch, promising efficacy in eradicating flakes and restoring moisture.
Redken's Scalp Relief Shampoo uses pyrithione zinc, too — surprise! — but it's worthy of a spot on this list because of its emphasis on soothing itching or irritation on the scalp. I know, all of them strive to do this, but Redken's really homes in on the skin.
American Crew's been around for a few decades and nowadays you can find it in most stores. Their Anti-Dandruff Shampoo quells the condition with zinc pyrithione, rosemary, sage leaf extract, peppermint, and tea tree oil.
UK haircare company Philip Kingsley's luxurious Flaky Scalp Cleansing Shampoo does just that: cleans the scalp until it's free of flakes. But it doesn't do so aggressively enough to any damage. It's formulated with a natural green apple scent, gentle ingredients and piroctone olamine, an anti-fungal active ingredient capable of encouraging hair growth.
Trust anything described as "therapeutic" on the bottle. (Kidding. That's bad advice.) Neutrogena's T/Sal Shampoo, though, does work — quite well, honestly. 3-percent salicylic acid contributes flake-fighting capabilities, and the formula altogether is free from added colors, preservatives and fragrances.
Sachajuan's Scalp Shampoo uses an interesting mix of ingredients to address both the visible signs and root causes of dandruff. Piroctone lamine and climbazole address the yeast-like fungus found to cause it, rosemary oil relaxes the hair, menthol soothes the scalp, and salicylic acid clears stubborn build-up.